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Students gather outside Joyner Library April 17 for a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the shootings at Virginia Tech. (Photo by Zach Sirkin)

ECU Community Responds to Virginia Tech Shootings

By Joy Holster

East Carolina University officials reacted quickly on April 16, demonstrating concern for the safety and wellbeing of the ECU community in the wake of tragic shootings that left 33 dead at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

While many faculty, staff and students were still absorbing the grim reports from Blacksburg, ECU officials immediately began taking steps to alleviate fears and answer questions related to safety and security.

Reaching Out

On the day of the shootings, ECU administrators and police officers met in Mendenhall Student Center with the ECU Student Congress to address student issues and concerns about campus violence. On April 17, a candlelight vigil and prayer service offered an opportunity for faculty, staff and students to express emotions and support for the victims. The ECU Center for Counseling and Student Development reached out by e-mail to anyone needing assistance, while Chancellor Steve Ballard touched base with everyone in the ECU community through e-mail and a message on the ECU Web site.

At the candlelight vigil, held on the Sonic Plaza, students spoke out about the need to reconnect with one another, to take responsibility for their own safety and to reach out to people in need of help.

Following the vigil was a non-denominational prayer service sponsored by Campus Ministries and held in Mendenhall Student Center. There members of the ECU community recited prayers, played music, and joined in moments of silence for the victims. They wrote messages of encouragement on a large banner that will be delivered to Virginia Tech. ECU Counseling Center staff were on hand to help students with their emotional reactions.

Tragic events like the Virginia Tech shootings create a feeling of solidarity with the victims, said Lynn Roeder, associate vice chancellor for Student Life and interim dean of students. Roeder also serves as director of the Counseling Center.

“Students feel a strong need to do something in response,” Roeder said.

A hand-lettered sign on a Cotten Hall railing expresses support for students at Virginia Tech.

“Most of them cannot travel to Blacksburg to help, but they can participate in events like the vigil and prayer service at ECU.”

The core issue for students, Roeder said, is a new awareness of vulnerability in a place where they have always felt safe. “Now innocence is lost,” Roeder said. The Virginia Tech shootings drive home a “harsh and frightening reality” for students that “even if the university put officers at every corner, we can not completely guarantee their safety.”

Evaluating Threats

Details about the Virginia Tech shooter’s troubling behavior highlight the need for universities to take proactive measures to identify and assist mentally unstable individuals before a crisis occurs. But Roeder indicated that legal capacity for intervention is limited.

Universities are in a difficult position, she said. Even if a student is clearly unstable, she said, “unless they make a specific threat there is very little we can do.”

“Universities today are struggling to find the fine line between respecting students’ rights and protecting the campus,” Roeder said.

ECU’s Counseling Center already works with faculty members to identify and monitor students who are not adjusting well to campus life. But students must be willing to accept whatever help is offered. Some universities have tested programs that allow administrative withdrawal for students identified as unstable, but legal issues have arisen regarding student rights.

As of now, Roeder said, “there just is no mechanism in place to handle students who exhibit unstable behavior but make no specific threats.”

“Most likely every counseling center on every campus across the country is having this same conversation,” she said, and new ideas for managing potential threats may result.

In the meantime, officials are planning training programs to help faculty and staff identify and safely deal with unstable personalities within the campus community.

Considering Communications

ECU officials are also reviewing the university’s system for communication during a crisis. Systems already in place for communication in emergencies include voice mail alerts, mass e-mail distribution, an ECU Web page alert banner, emergency hotlines, blue light telephones, and advisory radio transmission on AM 530. Faculty, staff and students with access to PCs may see a pop-up “Alert” message appear on the computer screen. ECU Police could use public address systems on patrol cars to deliver urgent messages. Departmental safety representatives might also be called upon to participate in communication efforts.

ECU officials have successfully tested a text messaging program that would send information to cell phone users. This summer, they plan to evaluate for purchase products that could implement a text messaging program, while also reviewing the cost and feasibility of personal alert devices or a community-wide paging or alarm system.

In addition, the UNC General Administration’s PIER (Public Information and Emergency Response) Initiative will be launched this year. This program streamlines crisis communication and mass notification efforts through off- campus electronic storage of data and contact information. Even if ECU electronic communications went down, PIER would allow the university to maintain an alternative Web presence and to communicate with faculty, staff and students using telephone, fax, text messages and e-mail.

Preparing to Respond

A Letter to the ECU Community
from Chancellor Steve Ballard

Our thoughts and our prayers are with our colleagues at Virginia Tech. Monday was an awful day for our nation and for higher education.

Our emergency personnel, under the leadership of Dr. Marilyn Sheerer, Vice Chancellor for Student Life, began meeting immediately to consider how we at East Carolina can be better prepared. Safety has been a front-burner issue for us in recent years, partly because of violent crimes on our sister campuses in the University of North Carolina system. We have already expanded our university police department, revamped the ways that students gain access to residence halls, appointed a campus safety officer, improved lighting at night on the campus, and negotiated a new mutual aid agreement with the Greenville Police Department. ECU police regularly practice emergency drills, both on their own and in concert with city, county, state and federal agencies. Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our students.

Unfortunately, we also know that senseless acts of violence are extremely difficult to prevent. That said, I have asked Dr. Sheerer, working with Vice Chancellor Kevin Seitz and our police and community partners, to ensure that we can get messages to our students in such a disaster, that we can lock down the campus as much as possible, and that we will have a procedure for locking down classrooms. Many other options are under evaluation. ECU is a thriving, dynamic, widespread institution. We have more than 24,000 students, about 6,000 employees, and more than 200 buildings on four distinct campus areas in and around Greenville. In addition, we occupy a number of buildings in downtown Greenville. This arrangement presents marvelous opportunities, but it also makes us vulnerable to individuals intent on doing harm. We are assessing every possible way to reduce this threat.

ECU has an excellent safety record, and we have great leadership in our campus safety organizations. At the same time, we are very concerned because our society has so many risks. That is why we will continue to devote time, energy and resources to this vital issue.

As events unfolded April 16, university police patrols increased in and around ECU’s residence halls, classrooms and campus buildings. At the same time, ECU administrators re-examined plans and procedures already in place to ensure campus safety and effective emergency responses.

The university already has an extensive emergency operations plan, a student safety and awareness plan, and police emergency response plans. ECU’s Student Safety and Awareness Committee was established in September 2006 in response to violence at other UNC system campuses. More than 30 members of that committee have been working to develop a comprehensive plan for student safety and awareness. Their efforts have included examination of existing safety programs, along with educational and training initiatives to increase safety awareness for students, faculty and staff.

Among the group’s initial efforts was the establishment of a campus-wide safety point person for the ECU campus. Michelle Lieberman, director of the Center for Off-Campus and Community Living, was appointed this month to this role, charged with completing and monitoring a detailed and comprehensive student safety plan. She will work in tandem with community officials and residents to ensure collaboration on safety initiatives. Lieberman is co-chair of the campus Student Safety and Awareness Committee, serving alongside Capt. Mike Perry of the ECU Police.

Lieberman

“We will definitely learn from what happened at Virginia Tech,” Lieberman said, and apply those lessons toward improving safety at ECU. But every campus is different, and every campus faces different issues, she said.

For effective preparation, emergency planners must consider any number of potential issues. Lieberman said the plan must be a matrix that includes consideration for environmental dangers such as hurricanes or flu outbreaks, structural events such as fires or explosions, and human factors such as the shooting at Virginia Tech.

In preparing the student safety plan, Lieberman had already completed some steps before the shootings at Virginia Tech took place. She had compiled responses from more than 40 faculty and staff members about safety issues on campus, and developed a student safety survey with a diverse team of students and administrators. She posted the survey online April 18, and received 2,300 responses within the first 12 hours.

“ECU is ahead of the game,” she said. “We have more work to do but we are on the right track.”

The university’s emergency response track record is very good, Lieberman noted. When an off-campus shooting occurred last year, a campus lockdown went into effect immediately. After the fire in Clement dorm and another recent fire in student housing off-campus, ECU officials responded quickly, taking care of student needs as efficiently as possible.

“We do a great job of working together as a team,” she said. “We don’t mind working hard and long hours to do whatever what it takes, to get the job done,” she said.

Because ECU is an open campus, no amount of effort can prevent crime. The campus is large and spread out, with only so many officers available to patrol. “There is no switch we can turn on and make the campus safe,” Lieberman said.

But preparations can be made to enable a rapid, effective response to contain an incident, while maintaining open communication and emotional support for all members of the ECU community. To complete those preparations, Lieberman said, “we are doing all we can.”

“Safety is front and center at ECU.”

4/23/07
This page originally appeared in the April 27, 2007 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at http://www.ecu.edu/news/poe/Arch.cfm.